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My worst-ever altitude headache January 9, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, travel.
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headacheI have to thank the state of New Mexico for the worst altitude headache I’ve ever had.  It may have been the worst headache I’ve ever had, period.  It did not occur at my lifetime highest altitude, which is a little over 17,000 feet (in Bolivia).  Nor did it occur on any of the 14ers I’ve climbed. The dreadful event occurred on Wheeler Peak, NM state high point, elev. 13,161.

Our band of not-very-serious state highpointers consisted of myself and Bob, accompanied by our longtime hiking buddies Steve and Mike.  It was our second day in New Mexico, and we had done a bit of strolling the day before around the Sandia Crest at the 9000 foot level to acclimatize.  At 7:30 in the morning on September 20, 1998, we set forth from the Taos Ski Basin, starting at 9400 feet.  We felt a touch of altitude, but the trail switchbacked gently up the mountain, and we marched along at a stately, measured pace.  We successfully passed the Bull of the Woods meadow, which actually did have a resident bull, but luckily it showed no particular inclination to charge.  We reached treeline at about 11,500 feet and emerged into gusty winds.  After a demoralizing descent of 350 feet (descents along a climb are always “demoralizing”), followed by a series of slightly irritating false summits, we made our final “assault” on the true summit.  It boasted a large bronze plaque and commanding views all the way into the Sangre de Cristos in Colorado.  A group of dedicated, serious highpointers conquered the summit shortly after we did.  They unfurled a large banner and took many pictures for commemorative and documentary purposes, telling us they had climbed Black Mesa, the Oklahoma state high point, only the day before.

Wheeler (picture taken in spring, as you can see by the snow pattern)

Wheeler (picture taken in spring, as you can see by the snow pattern)

So far, so good, with the altitude.  I hadn’t set any speed records, and I had been sucking wind near the top, but I was experiencing no real distress.  But on the way down something strange happened.  We sat down beside the trail for a break, and I bent over to rummage in my pack for a bite to eat.  When I straightened up again, the killer headache abruptly attacked.  It felt as though all of the blood vessels in my head were suddenly flowing with battery acid instead of blood.  Pulses of acid, or vinegar, or whatever substance it was that had whimsically replaced my blood, moved through my brain, second by throbbing second.  The scenery seemed to have a yellowish or pinkish tinge, but I couldn’t really look at anything.  We got up from our break, and I moved robotically along, trying to avoid any sudden turn of my head, any sudden exertion or burst of conversation or movement.  Just a smooth, steady oozing of my feet down the trail in as close to a gray tunnel of existence as I could manage.

It lasted for about five hours—long after we returned to the trailhead.  I don’t even remember exactly where we went that evening.  It probably involved some suitable southwestern-style food and beverages.  We were on our way up to Lake City, Colorado, to climb some 14ers in the San Juans.  I had no altitude problems there.  The major problem in Lake City was that a skunk had died somewhere near the cabin and the plumbing didn’t work right.  But that’s another story.

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1. Peter Bennett - January 10, 2009

Interesting how altitude sickness can strike in some places where you wouldn’t expect it to and doesn’t in places you would. I experienced some altitude sickness on a climb last summer to an elevation of just barely above 10,000 ft. This is in contrast to hundreds of climbs to elevations above 10,000 ft without a problem.

I wonder how much a person’s fitness level and overall health affect the occurrence of altitude sickness. If there might be some underlying health condition that wouldn’t be noticed at lower elevation but it becomes pronounced at higher elevation.

Our daughter Guin is in Bolivia and Peru now and I have been concerned about her getting altitude sickness, but so far no problems have been reported.

2. Jenny - January 10, 2009

The fitness question is interesting. I’ve read that very fit people can (oddly enough) get altitude sickness when less fit companions do fine, but my own experience has been that I’ve done better with altitude when I’ve been more fit. I wasn’t very fit back in the days when I hiked in Montana with you and Chris, and it definitely affected my adjustment to altitude. That still leaves the question why I got such a severe headache on this one occasion. There must’ve been something else going on—I think something to do with my circulatory system.
Another factor for me is that my lung capacity was permanently reduced after I had pneumonia in 2004 (a test showed that my right lung had 75% of normal capacity for someone of my build). That has definitely affected me at altitude, but I can tell the difference between altitude sickness and just not having as much lung power.

3. Laurence Hunt - January 13, 2009

I’m sure there is an ample body of theory on this phenomenon, though I do not know what it is. I suppose sometime this century, we’ll carry portable MRI machines with us, just like we do the GPS now. In the interim, we’re diagnosing after the fact. I’m glad it cleared up in 5 hours or so!

4. Jenny - January 13, 2009

It’s an intriguing problem to solve. The variables: fitness, elevation, amount of time spent acclimatizing, lung capacity, amount of rest after the last strenuous outing. One experience that has always puzzled me is climbing a 14er with no problems at all on the second day after driving out west from sea level (Mt. Democrat in Colorado), followed by Peak 10 the next day (a 13er), followed by several days of feeling like utter crap.


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